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Bound in red tape


It's hard to tell who's right in the squabble between the regional Housing and Urban Development office and Baltimore city's Housing and Community Development agency. What's clear is that the dispute is a classic case of bureaucracies getting so embroiled in red tape that the original function they were designed to serve becomes secondary.

The feds say Housing Commissioner Robert Hearn's agency hasn't kept track of millions of dollars in Community Development Block Grants awarded during the 1980s. HUD is threatening to make Baltimore return as much as $2 million if the city can't show exactly how the funds were spent.

The city responds that HUD is changing the rules. It claims, with some truth, that it keeps voluminous records of awards and that HUD basically has accepted its monitoring procedures until now. But apparently Maxine Saunders, the new HUD administrator appointed by HUD Secretary Jack Kemp to clean up the mess left by her predecessor, St. George Crosse III, believes the city should be doing a better job.

So the HUD bureaucrats are putting the squeeze on the HCD bureaucrats, who in turn will comb their records in order to produce detailed rebuttals. Mind you, HUD is not suggesting any fraudulent or criminal misuse of funds. This is mainly a dispute over interpretations and procedures -- sort of a spitting match between organizations.

Thus experts on both sides will collect, analyze and annotate thousands of pages of musty documents going back to the mid-1980s. They will write arcane mini-dissertations on each disputed point. Sometime next year the city and HUD will sit down and try to negotiate whether federal regulations regarding the wording of document X or contract Y require funds previously consigned to account A be shifted to account B. Then life will go on.

Of course, in the meantime neither agency will have much time to think about how to build affordable housing or to provide shelter for the homeless. They'll be far too busy unraveling all that red tape. After all, first things first.

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